In the early twentieth-century, when Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung parted ways, the future of psychoanalysis was unclear. Sure, Jung had presented academic papers to his peers and had volumes of journals and research, but his interest in the esoteric, astrology, the “occult,” the invisible, was well beyond his peers’ understanding of such subjects and how these subjects may relate to the study of clinical psychology.
Darren Aronofsky has always been one of my favorite directors since his early beginnings with Pi and Requiem for a Dream. The Fountain remains one of my favorite films of all time for many reasons, but when Black Swan debuted at the theater, I didn’t rush out to see it. It came and left the big screen, won an Oscar, and still I had made no attempt to view the film.
I knew that it would require attention, I knew it would have a profound effect upon its viewers, including me. I knew it would be intense and harrowing and I would have a love/hate relationship with it (which I do, but more so love than hate). I knew I would have to watch it more than once—and I knew that I would not be the same after I did see it. For nearly two whole days after I watched the film, I felt I had been altered.
Aronofsky has an uncanny ability, through subtlety, to create films that slowly creep into the consciousness of the viewer, pull them along plotside as the story increases with intensity, and, before the viewer can become aware and discern that they have been so affected by the work, he leaves them with a new perception and a consciousness that is forever changed. His modernized, neo-Hitchcockian approach may provide one of the most profound experiences that twenty-first century film—with all its available technological effects—can provide.
Carl Jung’s theories hinged upon what he called the “shadow,” the murky, unpredictable, unknown bank of unconscious material housed in the psyche that often expresses itself through known dualities, apparent opposites, and through the (not-so) graceful art of psychological “projection” a form of misidentification with one’s own traits and behaviors.
The beauty of Aronofsky’s Black Swan is that it presents an articulate metaphor for the ways in which the shadow of the psyche functions as told thorough the story of the ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) who has worked very hard to attain her role in the modern interpretation of Swan Lake.
The film accentuates Nina’s hyper-aware traits during her quest for perfection—not just in her ambition to perform the ballet role—but in her perceptions of who she is as a person. The white swan—beauty, grace, dignity, agility, poise—is all things that Nina believes that she must become to fully embody the role, and, more importantly, to become perfect.
The modern role, however, requires that Nina dance the black swan as well as the white—that is, that she embody persona that encompasses all things opposite of the white—power, seduction, rage, envy, freedom—those traits that Nina believes she must not embrace because she fears she will corrupt her purity in her quest for perfection. Sadly, what Nina does not understand is that perfection is unattainable.
As Nina continues to train for the role, her neuroses and hallucinations become more intense. She sees her rival dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis) in the subway corridor, she projects her fears of imperfection onto Lily while simultaneously fantasizing about her. Nina is unaware of her own obsessive skin-scratching problem while simultaneously blowing a hangnail out of proportion.
All the while, the brilliance of the way in which this film is presented is such that the viewer doesn’t know whose reality is whose—and which perception is “correct.” As viewers we strongly identify with Nina, but then find in various ways that we’ve been betrayed and that her perceptions are unreliable as the realities behind her hallucinations are revealed.
What is the truth of Nina’s situation? Is Nina simply pushing her physical and emotional limits in order to best embody the starring role? Her mother (Barbara Hershey) appears as a very strict parent who gives her daughter little room to express and be herself. Does Nina’s mother simply want her to forfeit the role? Or does she see something in Nina that Nina can’t possibly identify because she’s too myopically taken by her own role? Is the stage director simply a jerk who arrogantly takes advantage of the ballerinas in his company? Or is he a brilliant choreographer who is simply in touch with and honest about the seductive qualities that are necessary to make the black swan role work for his production?
As Nina slowly descends into her own personal hell, it’s done so adeptly on screen that only the savvy viewer is simultaneously aware that Nina’s most nightmarish descent is also the beginning of her greatest transformation. We see this as Nina, nearing her first curtain time, sprouts black feathers out of her back from the same place that she has been so obsessively scratching.
When the time finally comes for Nina to take the stage, her mother has called the company to tell them she is ill and will not perform. She has even gone so far as to remove the bedroom doorknob so Nina cannot leave. But Nina thwarts her mother, arrives at the show, and promises to perform.
Unfortunately, her hallucinations lead her to believe that she has shattered her rehearsal room mirror and killed Lily with a shard of glass. Only after Nina has danced the greatest dance of her life—the dance of the black swan—is it revealed that she has actually stabbed herself in the stomach with the shard of glass from her own dressing room mirror.
The literal death of this ballerina, then, is also the death of her perfection, the traits over which she lost her mind, the fact that she finally had embraced all that she believed was “wrong” “bad” and “taboo.” Her literal death is a symbol of the integration of the opposites of the psyche, the white and the black, the purity and the corruption. The duality that was once present when Nina began training for her role at the beginning of the film no longer exists. She has transcended the polarizing opposites inherent within her psyche through her on-stage transformation as the black swan, thereby becoming whole once again.
The personality is riddled with contradictions. But the soul, that thing in which Carl Jung believed (and Freud did not) is transcendently whole. It always has been and always will be. The quest, the learning which we all do as we move through life on this planet, is not the quest for perfection, it is the quest is integrate our inherent contradictions and idiosyncrasies and move toward wholeness. It is the quest to dance in life as both the white and black swans—and to do so knowing that these apparently dualistic opposites of the psyche are much more powerful together than when we attempt to keep them apart.
I know now that I waited until the perfect time to watch this film. Jung’s shadow is the cornerstone of archetypal theories, studies in which I have again been entrenched since the beginning of the new year. We also just experienced a very powerful Scorpio full moon and eclipse that Jung would likely have observed, studied, and commented upon. And as I’ve been working with this material, I’ve also put together a teleclass on archetypal dreaming that begins to work with the stuff of the unconscious, including the shadow.
Introduction to Archetypal Dreaming will be held on Saturday, May 11, at 10 a.m. PST. For more information, click here.
Copyright © 2013 Kelly Lydick